Oh to be an Australian in a Melbourne fan park at 4am on a Thursday; no intention of going to work in the morning, drunk on the delirium of the mob (and maybe a VB Longneck or two), living the dream, flirting with the impossible. The Socceroos booked their place in the knockout stages of the World Cup on Wednesday by beating Denmark in a crushing blow to pastry enthusiasts, fairytale authors, and purveyors of small plastic bricks everywhere. The subsequent scenes from Down Under were the kind of exhilirating sketches that linger for a lifetime and that only come about once every four years.
Needless to say, I now want Australia to win the World Cup. Provided England crash out to France on penalties in the quarter-finals, of course. If by some uneasy miracle the two cross paths in the winding, murky catacombs of the latter stages, I would, naturally, still plump for the Three Lions, but I wouldn’t feel particularly ecstatic about it. It’d be like dropping your pet kangaroo off at the abattoir. I wish there was another way, Skippy!
The point is, I’ve got a soft spot for the Aussies, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why. Not only have they spoken with honesty, intelligence, and tenderness about the moral rot that looms over this World Cup, but they have also applied themselves with an endeavour and togetherness that drastically belies their apparent lack of quality. And they have Jason ‘Cumdog’ Cummings, so whack that in the pros column too.
But while the Socceroos have stolen a little piece of my heart and hidden it away in their figurative belly pouch, they are not the only nation who I’ve taken a shine to.
The end of the World Cup group stage can often feel a little like the ‘In Memoriam’ segment at the Oscars; farewell departed friends, old and new. We will remember you... for a bit. So, as the projectionist loads up the black and white powerpoint, and somebody starts to pipe in a breathy, mournful rendition of ‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell over the PA system, let us take a moment to reflect.
Where better to begin than with Saudi Arabia? Managed by a perfume advert model who used to be in charge of Cambridge United, the Falcons turned up, stunned Lionel Messi’s Argentina with one of the most seismic upsets in World Cup history, then promptly collapsed. Putting themselves about with the endearing anarchism of a herd of nine-year-olds in a Laser Quest all hopped up on birthday cake, and with an absolute nutcase of a goalkeeper to boot, what’s not to like? Sadly, they finished bottom of Group C, but at least saved Mexico the indignity of being eliminated on yellow cards alone. A noble gang of affable lunatics.
Speaking of, rarely have teams gone as hell for leather as Tunisia without really getting anywhere. Think Sonic the Hedgehog on a treadmill, all the while being cheered on by an army of fez-wearing foghorns, and you’re partway there. The North Africans rocked up in Qatar wearing a kit designed in the image of Hannibal’s cuirass, and things only got wilder from there. Within minutes of their first fixture getting underway Aissa Laidouni was celebrating two-footing somebody into the advertising hoardings like he’d scored a last minute winner in the final itself, and I was a little bit bowled over. The Carthage Cattermole would set the tone for a frenzied tactical approach that was somewhere between a game of British Bulldog and the advanced stages of a Nokia Snake run. Inevitably, like a soapbox racer attempting to enter orbit, the wheels came off, but hey, that battling win over France’s second string will go down in history - and deservedly so.
In Group F, Canada’s manager John Herdman inadvertently started a blood feud with the entire nation of Croatia when he promised that his Maple Leafs would, well, ‘F up’ the 2018 finalists. You can take the man out of County Durham, etc etc. Of course, Canada were always going to be too polite to properly do any ‘F’-ing this winter, but if nothing else, they do deserve a first ever World Cup point to go with their first ever World Cup goal. Morocco await in their concluding dead rubber.
And finally, shout-outs to Japan and Costa Rica, duking it out like mice at the feet of Spain and Germany’s elephantine ambitions. Both will need minor miracles to sneak through to the knockout stages, although the Japanese - boasting the cleanest kits and the cleanest fans at the tournament - gave themselves a fighting chance by bloodying the Germans’ nose in their first outing. Likewise, Costa Rica bounced back from a 7-0 hounding in their curtain-raiser to eke out three points against Hajime Moriyasu’s men - plus, they have Sunderland teenager Jewison Bennette and a native sloth population, so that’s me sold. Mathematically, both could still progress. Realistically, neither should. But what is life without the ridiculousness of hope?
Really, that is what the World Cup is all about; hope. We pray for upsets and shocks, we yearn for the little fella to come good. And that’s why we develop these fleeting attachments, these fickle devotions. For one month every four years, I deal with more soft spots than a hatter in a maternity ward or a shell-less snail (a slug?). After all, who doesn’t want to see the Cumdog get his hands on the biggest prize in global sport?